The Oldest Existing Anglican Church in the Southern Hemisphere | Sharon Henry
The churches of St Helena reveal a fascinating insight to the island’s short history. Considering how much we enjoy visiting churches abroad, we’ve decided it’s time to pay closer attention to what we have at home. St James, the world’s oldest surviving Anglican church south of the equator, is a worthy place to start.
“St James’ church is my life”
St James’ church lies in the city of Jamestown. The church was originally built around 1674 and rebuilt in 1774. It’s a modest church but the only one on the island with a spire and a clock tower. Vicars who have served here over the years includes the brother of Lewis Carroll. The inner walls tell stories, there’s a bell in the tower who’s a cousin of ‘Big Ben’ and the church has the written permission of Queen Victoria to become the island’s cathedral…
I met with Ivy Ellick OBE, organist of St James for 57 years and churchwarden for 42, arguably the best person with personal history of the church to give me a tour. “St James’ church is my life,” she smiles, “I’m very proud of it, it has so much history.”
The Portuguese, who discovered St Helena in 1502, built a chapel from an unseaworthy ship near, or a few paces from the very spot St James sits today. “It might have been a Roman Catholic church,” says Ivy, “but it is fair to say, there’s been a church in this vicinity for over 500 years.”
A Place To Go When You’re Feeling Down
Above us, the roof clicks as the iron trusses react to the midday heat sounding like the creaking joints of a kneeling congregation. Sunlight spills in from all sides, illuminating the stained and painted glass in glorious fashion, and bounces off whitewashed walls and memorial tablets of loved ones long passed.
“It’s so light, serene and peaceful inside,” says Ivy sinking into a pew. “Although it’s in the middle of the noise of Jamestown, you can switch it all off. If you come in here feeling a little down or depressed, take a seat and put everything out of your mind. I can tell you, you’ll go out feeling really uplifted. I think it is the place somehow.”
Sickness That Yields To No Human Remedy
Although discovered in 1502 it wasn’t until 1659 that St Helena saw a permanent settlement. This came in the form of the English East India Company to provide an outpost for ships returning from the East. In it’s heyday, St Helena saw over 1,000 ships calling every year.
The memorial tablets tell of those travellers, dying on the way from India to England: a commander in the Battle of Waterloo, a mother of six, a father of five, laid to rest on St Helena. The memorials date back to 1786 and are etched with sentiments that can stir emotions.
This one in particular pulls at the heartstrings.
NEAR THIS TABLET, PLACED BY THE HAND OF AFFECTION, REPOSE THE MORTAL REMAINS OF, ANN ELIZABETH, ORPHAN AND ONLY CHILD OF, ROBERT JOHN AND LOUISA HUNTER, LATE OF MADRAS; WHO, AFTER A LINGERING AND WASTING SICKNESS, WHICH YEILDED TO NO HUMAN REMEDY, WAS SNATCHED FROM THIS SUBLUNERY SCENE, ON THE 23RD DAY OF DECEMBER 1824, WHILST ON HER PASSAGE FROM INDIA TO ENGLAND, AGED 2 YEARS.
‘SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN TO COME UNTO ME AND FORBID THEM NOT, FOR SUCH IS THE KINGDOM OF GOD.’
The First Coloured Priest on St Helena
Mounted on the west wall are memorials of the Solomon family, founders of ‘Solomon and Company,’ the island’s largest private company. In 2015 the company celebrated a 225-year anniversary operating on St Helena.
In 1909 Lawrence Chase Walcott became vicar of St James until 1951. He was held in such high regard there’s a tablet inside and a memorial outside, in his honour. In his book, ‘Churches Of The South Atlantic Islands 1502 – 1991,’ Bishop Edward Cannan wrote, Reverend Walcott was St Helena’s first coloured priest, born to a West Indian barrister and an English mother. Initially there were objections of this ‘retrograde step’ from other parishes. He became the founder of the island’s Scout movement, Superintendent of Schools and editor of the St Helena Magazine, and won hearts.
Just through the entrance of the church a tea light flickers, a remembrance lit in today’s world for the sum of 10p. “Anybody can come in and light a candle,” says Ivy, “especially if you’ve lost a loved one, have somebody sick or worried about. Light a candle, sit down and reflect. The doors are always open.”
Playing The Pipes Of Peace
The interior of St James is not only bright, but warm and colourful; red carpet over worn flagstones line the aisles. The pews and alter of teak and iroko (wisely chosen for their resistance to white ant that has ravaged the church on previous occasions) glows. The blue and gold of the pipe organ lends a splendour to the scene.
Made by the Positive Organ Company, London, the organ is over 100 years old, bought by Reverend Walcott in 1914 for £205. Now electric, the bellows were originally powered by pump action. “So there’d be this person behind the organ pumping in the air,” laughs Ivy, “usually it used to be an old fella who’d fall asleep!”
Being the church organist for 57 years, Ivy is intimate with the instrument, “the pipes give an authentic sound,” she explains.
Ivy is also responsible for the organ’s upkeep. “I take the pipes out now and again to blow the dust out, it’s quite fun! And I always make sure we have money to get an organ builder out from Cape Town or the UK for full maintenance every ten years. I hope when I’m no longer around, somebody will keep it up.”
Churches Of St Helena – The History
Speaking of music, “See that mark along the walls?” asks Ivy. “Well, apparently that was the original height of the roof. We had a garrison here during the 18th and 19th centuries and to take that sound of their brass bands, they lifted the roof. So now you’ll notice when we have the Gettogethers [orchestra] playing here, it comes out beautifully because the church is built for big sound.”
A marble font stands at the back of St James’ church. At the base an inscription reads, ‘J Malcott. London.’ John Malcott was a stonemason responsible for carved decoration and a number of funerary monuments. He died in 1766 which dates the font to be at least 252 years old.
The Diocese of St Helena was founded in 1859 and Jamestown was made a city by the Letters Patent of Queen Victoria. A city, however, without a cathedral.
“In that charter,” Ivy tells me, “Queen Victoria recommended the cathedral should be in the city of Jamestown. But, the Queen was told there were a lot of people in Jamestown of disrepute… In those days we used to get 1,000 ships passing through every year so Jamestown was full of pubs.
“Irene Harris’ house used to be called ‘The First and the Last’ because it was the first pub up the street and the last one down! So, because of this reputation the Queen wouldn’t make St James’ Church the cathedral. But she said if conditions changed, the cathedral must be here in Jamestown.”
To back this claim, a passage in Bishop Edward Cannan’s book, ‘Churches Of The South Atlantic Islands 1502 – 1991,’ reads ‘…the Church of St Paul was to be the Cathedral, although the Letters Patent gave the Bishop authority to make any present or future Church in Jamestown the Cathedral.’
“We may get there you never know!” adds Ivy.
The Dwindling Congregation Numbers
In the last census of 2016, 73% of St Helenians classed themselves as belonging to the Church of England. The census of 1946 recorded 93%.
In 2016, 533 people (13.2%) ticked the, ‘Does not have a faith, or prefer not to say,’ box. In 1946, 20 people out of a 4,748 population were recorded as such.
“I’ve definitely noticed the change in congregation over the time,” says Ivy answering my question about attendance. “Like on a Sunday morning the church used to be full. People would come in families, you’d get the mum, dad and all their children coming in and filling up the seats.
“But we don’t get that now. The first time I went to church in America, I was so overwhelmed to see full families in attendance like we used to have, it brought a tear to my eye.”
We Are All Getting Old
“The age of people who come to St James nowadays, in a sense, is quite worrying. We do get people in for baptisms, marriages and confirmations, and we get the church loaded for funerals. But on a Sunday… I think maybe we do a lot better than other churches, we could get up to 40- 50. But if you look at the parish of Jamestown, the Briars and Rupert’s, we only have about 800 population so I think proportionately we don’t do so bad.
“But the thing is, a lot of them are old people, including myself, so it is worrying.
“What can the church do? Well, Father Dale is working on some ideas to modernise and make the church a little more attractive for people and families…”
A decline in the Church of England’s Sunday attendance is a worry also in England. In their 2011 census, 59% of the population defined themselves as Christian, down from 72% in 2001. One in four people said they had no religion, up from 15% in 2001.
We hope you enjoyed our tour of St James, the oldest surviving Anglican church in the southern hemisphere, a church as well as an informal museum. As mentioned earlier in the post, the churches of St Helena really do reveal a fascinating insight to the island’s history. Who knew about the cathedral naming?!
Hopefully we’ll discover more as the series continues.